Looking outside my window on Christmas Day, it looks like any other wintry day on Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge (NWR): hundreds of thousands of albatross for as far as the eye can see (both Laysan [Mōlī] and Black-footed [Ka’upu] Albatross [Phoebastria immutabilis and P. nigripes respectively]). By now, with winter has settled in on Midway and a hush has fallen over the (previously) riotous albatross colony: it is incubation time. In mid-November, the first eggs were laid and now most of the albatross sit quietly on their nests, often dozing off under the midday sun. All around the houses, throughout town, lined up along roads (sometimes in the middle of the road), the albatross nest on every nest-able substrate (in other words, they are able to create some sort of a small depression on the ground, a shallow cup for their egg). The non-breeding albatross still stick around, traversing across the colony, crossing the streets, and greeting fellow non-breeders (or potential mates) most enthusiastically; strutting, chest puffed up, they bow and whinny as if introducing themselves and—if reciprocated—move onwards to rapid-fire bill claps, moo’s, screams, head bobs, and other dance moves part of their elaborate courtship display. There is never a dull moment out here on Midway, and the birds don’t stop for anyone—or for any holidays. It’s go, go, go every day.
In comparison to the snowy, icy landscape back at my home in Idaho currently, Midway seems a world apart. Gazing out of my window, I squint my eyes and the blooming Sweet Alyssum (Lobularia maritima) blurs to form a carpet of white, nearly like snow, around all the nesting albatross. Not perhaps the traditional idea of a Winter Wonderland, but indeed a land of wonder, especially so during the winter.
With Christmas upon us, you might wonder how we celebrate the holidays in such a remote, isolated place. Winter is—surprisingly enough—one of the busier seasons on the Refuge as it is the time when the Annual Albatross Census occurs—in other words, every albatross nest is counted and accounted for. Each winter, a team of 15 or so volunteers will spend two weeks walking through every acre of Midway Atoll’s three islands (Sand, Eastern, and Spit Islands), armed with a spray gun of biodegradable paint (to mark nests) and two clickers (to keep track of the number of nesting Laysan and Black-footed Albatross). Back and forth they go, transect after transect, counting every nesting albatross. Not only is Midway Atoll NWR unique as the world’s largest albatross colony for a single species (more than 70% of the world’s Laysan Albatross nest on Midway and 98% nest in the greater Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument), but this is the largest census of its kind. As a result of this major undertaking, Midway’s population increases by nearly 40% for a few weeks; that, and due to the timing of the census, these volunteers are on island over the holidays. As the saying goes, the more the merrier—and the more to share the holiday cheer. For Christmas on Midway, there is always a a White Elephant Gift Exchange on Christmas Eve and a midday feast on Christmas Day at the Clipper House (where all of the Refuge’s workers, researchers, and contractors eat their meals, prepared buffet-style by Thai National contractors—guaranteed amazing food each day!). This year, a new tradition was added, to celebrate the holidays and all those here to share them through a traditional Hawaiian chant—the morning sunrise chant, E ala ē.
On Christmas morning, we searched the sky, an overcast bed of silver-gray, for the first inklings of sunrise. Soon, around 7:30am, we spotted a few clouds with peach-pink hues illuminated on their underbellies: sunrise was imminent. Gathered around the most eastern point of Sand Island, looking eastwards over the Eastern Island, our chant was led by past Kupu Hawaiʻi Youth Conservation Corps (HYCC) intern Victoria “Miki” Taylor. Clapping slowly, methodically, she starts to chant, and we all join in:
E ala ē, ka lā i ka hikina (Rise up, the sun is in the East)
I ka moana, ka moana hōhonu (In the ocean, the deep ocean)
Pi‘i i ka lewa, ka lewa nu‘u (Climbs to the sky, the great height of the sky)
I ka hikina, aia ka lā, e ala ē! (In the East, there is the sun, rise up!)
Despite the overcast weather, the sun still peaked out of the clouds, offering sunshine on Christmas Day. We stayed a while out on pier, watching albatross take off and glide away over the choppy waters. The wind starts to pick up and we head back to the house to warm up with hot chocolate and open our gifts from family and friends that have accumulated under our not-so-traditional Ironwood Christmas tree.
Mele Kalikimaka from the crew on Midway Atoll NWR! From left to right: Robby Lambert, Kristina McOmber, Michelle Smith, Taylor Smith, Beth Wolff (laying), Victoria “Miki” Taylor, Deisha Norwood, David Dow, and Wieteke Holthuijzen. In the background is our Ironwood Christmas tree decorated with up-cycled marine debris.
Ironwood trees (Casuarina equisetifolia) were introduced in the early 20th century during the construction of an undersea cable across the Pacific Ocean, going from the West Coast to Honolulu to Midway Atoll and then onwards to Guam and finally Manila. At that time, Midway Atoll was still mostly uninhabited and wild—and largely, a wind-blown, sandy spit of land occupied by albatross, native bunchgrass, and other low-growing forbs. The climate could be very severe—ranging from blistering sun to blasting winds and pouring rain. To provide a windbreak, Ironwoods were brought in from Australia—many of which still stand today. Unfortunately, this introduced species, like many others, proved to be quite invasive. This rapid-growing tree species establishes itself across a wide array of habitats, from coastal sand dunes to high mountain slopes to the humid tropics—and Midway was certainly no challenge for this species. Ironwoods also happen to be salt-tolerant, wind-resistant (the main reason for their original importation), and adaptable to moderately poor soils. As described in Mark Rauzon’s book on the natural history of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (Isles of Refuge), the Ironwoods grew and recruited quickly across Midway, taking over open, sandy areas (key nesting habitat for a variety of seabird species)—and then consequently shedded their needle-like leaves and blanketed the ground so that other native plants could not sprout. Ironwoods are also allelopathic, meaning that they release chemicals that deter the growth of other plants—chemical warfare if you will. Beyond outcompeting native species, Ironwoods also increase shore erosion by replacing beach-binding, sand dune-building Naupaka (Scaevola taccada); their shallow root system also makes them vulnerable to tumbling down during storms and high winds, injuring and killing birds below.
Although Ironwoods are a bit less impressive than kingly Douglas Firs, our Ironwood Christmas tree (decorated with marine debris and buoys washed up on Midway’s beaches) makes a fitting and sustainable alternative. That, and it’s our holiday contribution to invasive species control!
After opening our gifts, reminiscing over and sharing stories of family, traditions, and home with one another, we walk over to the Clipper House where we are greeted with a most festive feast, a fusion of food from around the world. Mashed potatoes, stuffing, turkey, and roast beef are interspersed with fresh, green papaya salad, Massaman curry, and fried fish. And for dessert, Kupu Intern Kristina McOmber (Conservation Leadership Development Program, Volunteer Crew Leader on Midway Atoll NWR) shares her homemade grapefruit poppyseed loaves (featuring fresh citrus fruit from Midway’s old orchard, a remnant of the past—but still enjoyed by many). All the tables have been rearranged in Clipper House, forming one large, family table that runs down the length of the building. Another Christmas tree is up in the Clipper House as well, complemented by moving reindeer—not what you might expect to find in a place as remote as Midway! And of course, no Christmas meal is complete without caroling. Jamming on our ukuleles, we sing several holiday favorites such as “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” but also “Kana Kaloka”(or “Here Comes Santa Claus” in Hawaiian).
Although it is still sad to be so far away from home, especially during the holidays, all of us out here have become part of the Midway ʻohana. And even in bouts of homesickness, I think back to words of wisdom from Toy Intaraphrom, one of the Thai National contractors on Midway, when he describes what it means to be at home: “The world is our home, so it matters not where we are.”
On Midway Atoll – Pihemanu – Kuaihelani, we have our own community. We are a diverse group, folk thrown together from all walks of life, all different cultures, languages, backgrounds and experiences. Just as we don’t choose our families—we are born into them and we love and support them regardless—we take care of one another on Midway. We are a family. And perhaps that is the most important lesson to learn on Midway—and a concept to keep in mind with the New Year.
From all of us on Midway Atoll NWR: Hauʻoli makahiki hou!
This blog post was originally featured on Kupu, a Honolulu-based 501(c)3 non-profit that empowers future generations to create a more sustainable, pono Hawai‘i. Check back here to read more stories and updates about Midway Atoll NWR.
Wieteke Holthuijzen: budding environmental scientist, passionate birder.